If you’re looking for a great book to deepen your thinking about the causes and consequences of inequality, here are three of my favorite reads of the last few months.
Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, by Paul Pierson & Jacob Hacker
Many progressives point to the election of Ronald Reagan as the great turning point in our economy, ushering in a new age of inequality, but that misses a much bigger story. In this eye-opening and insightful book, Pierson and Hacker document the dramatic shifts in the political landscape that took place in the decade prior to Reagan’s election. As unions were in decline, corporate America was organizing like never before, hiring armies of lobbyists and filling the coffers of political campaigns. By the late 70s, they were able to stop President Carter’s agenda dead it its tracks, effectively crippling his presidency. Pierson and Hacker’s book goes further by documenting the continuation of this trend through the 80s, 90s, and today. Taken in context, the recent Citizens United ruling and the assault on public sector unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere are the continuation of a long-term pattern that must be turned around. The core take-away from this book is that organizations matter… a lot. If we are to turn the tide back in our favor, we must organize a real movement from the ground up, because being right just isn’t enough.
The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett
The negative social consequences of inequality is fairly intuitive, but Wilkinson and Pickett take it to an entirely new level with hard data and great analysis. The book examines the way in which inequality, and the increased social stratification that goes with that, reaches deep down into the human biology, triggering primal fight-or-flight instincts, reducing trust levels, and increasing stress. Using statistical data comparing developed nations around the world and states within the US, they document clear correlations between a wide array of social indicators – including physical and mental health, obesity, crime, bankruptcy, and more – with higher levels of inequality. One clear message from The Spirit Level is that inequality is bad for everyone, including those at the top of the economic ladder.
Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future, by Robert Reich
Reich takes on inequality from a different perspective. Instead of arguing the morality or social implications of inequality, he focuses on the economic basics. Without a strong middle class, the economy stalls. Over the past few decades, middle class Americans have used various coping mechanisms to stay ahead despite stagnant wages for the bottom 90%, including shifting to two-income households and taking on debt, but these families have since hit a wall. He proposes numerous policy solutions to reverse the growing inequalities and revive the middle class, including a “reverse income tax” that actually pays out to anyone earning under $50,000, coupled with graduated rates for higher-income households topping out at 55%; taxing capital gains and dividends the same as wage income; and expanding public investments in mass transit, Medicare for all, and more. If you’re looking for a good book that explores the economic trends and growing divide of the last few decades, this may be the book you’re looking for.